The Space Trilogy

By Arthur C. Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

This volume collects three short novels by Arthur C. Clarke under a general ‘colonising the solar system’ theme.

The first, Islands in the Sky (4*), is one that I remember reading as a teenager and being disappointed by. Upon re-reading, however, I really enjoyed it. Part of the problem that I had with this book first time round was the cover blurb, which made it sound awfully exciting. And, with the best will in the world, it isn’t. A teenager wins a TV gameshow trip to anywhere in the world, and through a legal loophole manages to wangle his way to the innermost of the space stations that girdle the earth. The book tells of the various adventures that he had there. This is all good, enjoyable stuff, but it’s also a book where problems are solved with solid Clarke-ian engineering, by sensible men who probably smoke pipes. I wish I could go back and warn my younger self to ignore the blurb on the back and appreciate the book for what it is.

Then we have The Sands of Mars (4*), about half of which isn’t actually set on the red planet at all, but on the ship taking our protagonist there. There’s a lot of description of life on a spaceship, the sorts of problems that might occur, then similar sorts of things on Mars itself. Again, very solid engineering and science, apart from the big whoppers of life and (something Clarke ruefully acknowledges in the foreword), there being no mountains on Mars! This book also has more of a story than ‘Islands in the Sky’, introducing politics between Mars and the homeworld.

The final book, Earthlight (5*) is the best of the three. It retains an everyman narrator, in common with the others, but has a much stronger story, with conflict brewing between Earth and the Federation that comprises Venus, Mars and the outer moons. Central to this conflict is that heavy metals are rare in the solar systems, and that Earth is hoarding them, preventing the colonists from getting access to them. However, a discovery on the moon could change everything, and war may be inevitable. While being set mostly in a lunar observatory, full of scientists, this book is still pacier and more political than the other books, and filled with some marvellous turns of phrase.

All three books here were written before the start of the space age. While they get some things right, there’s obviously a lot that they got wrong, most notably the extent to which human space exploration and colonisation throughout the solar system would have progressed. Still, all three books are optimistic visions of humanity achieving greatness despite the odds, and very enjoyable reads.

Book details

ISBN: 9781857987805
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2000

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